Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Glee's "Dream On" vs. Reality

The highly anticipated Joss Whedon episode of Glee, "Dream On", features Artie admitting to his girlfriend, his school counselor and himself that his dream is to become a dancer. Tina does research showing advances in spinal cord injury therapy, raising Artie's hopes, only to have Emma, the school counselor, point out that these "miracle cures" are a decade away. The episode ends with Artie sadly singing "Dream a Little Dream" and Tina dances with another man. I'm sure that there's not a dry eye in the Gleekdom.

What's terribly sad is that it's completely unnecessary. Had Tina entered the terms "Wheelchair Dance" into Google instead, she would have found that 22 countries have participated in a wheelchair dance sport competition association annually since 1998 and that there's a reality program on BBC3 devoted to selecting their nation's dance competitors. Whedon and the show's writers should have known about integrated dance, which crafts distinct movements and kinetics by using dancers with and without physical disabilities. Practiced over the past three decades by more than two dozen dance companies worldwide, this genre includes numbers choreographed by such movement innovators as Bill T. Jones, Joanna Haigood, Victoria Marks, Stephen Petronio and Margaret Jenkins, amongst others. If you'd like to see an example of how beautiful a dancer Artie could be, watch this short clip of the AXIS dance company's 2009 performance of "Light Shelter". Note how the choreography treats the assistive technology as a part of the body, which allows for greater complexity. The dancers use the handles for lifts. The wheels aid jumps. There are dips, tilts and spins. One dancer twirls another in the air slowly, chair and all.

I remember when Joss Whedon threatened to walk off the set so that he could have two women in a committed relationship kiss on screen. I wish he'd had the same moral courage to stand up to the creators of Glee rather than lie to American audiences just for the sake of a cheap sentimental plot twist. Your writing over three series shows that authenticity makes for vastly better drama than is on display here.

Seriously, Joss, make the Glee writers do the research. Reality is much more interesting than the smallness of the dreams on display in this episode of Glee.

You can find out more about how the series uses Artie in "Wheels" at In Medias Res, Bitch Magazine and Wheelchair Dancer. You can also find out more in an article I've submitted to be published in a future issue of the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures.


  1. Hmmm.... interesting, but overlooking several key points.
    1. The stoyr was trying to strike an emotional chord with its audience. Sometimes, in the media, complete accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of a story that hits home with a wide audience.
    2. It's all well and good for Joss to storm off the set of a show he created, his baby. It's a bit of a different matter to attempt to create major script alterations when he has been asked to direct someone else's baby. A director isn't a script editor.
    3. GLEE had a wheelchair dancing storyline in the first half of season 1, where Artie taught the Glee club to use wheelchairs for 'Proud Mary'. The GLEE team possibly thought that having Artie in another 'Wheelchair dancing' storyline would be repetitive, especially for hardcore Gleeks.

    Ultimately, the story was about Dreams, and dreams that often don't or can't come true no matter how much we want it. I think you raise valid points, but there are a lot of factors to consider.

  2. Thanks for commenting! Dreams are important, I agree with you on that point.

    But the problem is the smallness of these dreams on Glee. Artie can dance, professionally even. People with mobility impairments have been choreographed by Bill T. Jones! Heck, he could even play rugby: check out Murderball! And, of course, by casting actors like Kevin McHale, the series creators make it that much more difficult for real-life Arties to live their dreams to become dancers, singers and actors.

    As for your third point, please check out the first three links in the last paragraph. The first piece on "Proud Mary" is written by me, the second's on more general issues of representation in the series, while the last one is specifically from a dancer on "Proud Mary".

    As you can see, the writer-creators have a track record of failing badly on this issue. I hope that the blog post makes clear that the primary failure originates in Glee's writer-creators. That's to be expected in any series that resorts to 2 Very Special episodes (Wheels, Hairography) in its first 13 episodes. (I believe Joss said "There will never be a Very Special Buffy episode.")

    Joss Whedon didn't create this issue, but he did lend his name and credibility to this kind of representation. He's got enough industry mojo, especially as a guest director, to not be considered an innocent bystander. After all, he didn't guest direct an episode of High School Musical.

    And while I agree that striking an emotional chord is a good thing, I think it works best when it's an authentic experience of that emotion. Lord knows that the events on Buffy, Angel and Dollhouse aren't realistic, but they are internally consistent and based on real emotions. For me, when screenwriters make glaringly obvious errors, you're not treating your audience with respect as active, intelligent viewers.

    For me that's the major issue: Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuck all too often don't seem to respect their viewing audience. And that's why I'm utterly dismayed that Joss Whedon lent his name to this show.

  3. Tara, I think you may be missing a major point of this article. On the one hand, I do agree with you that it is much more gracious decision for Joss to go along with a script as is, but given his other work, and how progressive his other work is, it just doesn't make sense.

    As for the theme of the episode, I agree with David. Artie is erroneously lumped into the this episode's plot line about dreams deferred. What David is pointing out by citing the various integrative dance troops is that Artie CAN, in fact, fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a dancer, and that this reality was completely ignored by the writers in an attempt to manipulate the storyline to conform to its theme.

    It was lazy work on the part of the writers (yet again) not to research the possibilities for Artie as a dancer, and insulting to the audience that they resort to cheap heartstring pulling by enforcing a longstanding tradition in the media of focusing on the loss a wheelchair user experiences, and the inabilities of someone who uses a wheelchair, rather than his of her abilities and the contributions they can make, both in dance and as an extension, any other area of life they want to delve into.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. The last post has been removed because it was a duplicate. *shakes fist at server*

    Thanks for the interesting discussion, guys! :)

  6. I have watched every episode since Glee aired, a sort of Gleek. And I completely agree with David and Indoor Kitty on this one. From the beginning, I thought Glee missed a huge opportunity with the lack of integration of Artie in the dance scenes. And I was more than peeved to find out he wasn't actually an actor with a disability, seeing as how there are so many amazing disabled actors/dancers out there. Even given this paradox, I was willing to give Glee the benefit of the doubt, hoping the writers were trying to at least send a positive message to the viewing public about integration, even in the “make believe”. I had high hopes that the writers/producers would do their research, turn this show around, and show the world something of the amazing choreographic possibilities of including people with disabilities in dance. After all there is so much evidence out there by doing a simple search on the internet as previously mentioned.

    I’ve simply lost my patience with Glee. So far I’ve only found the show to communicate the following about dance and disability:

    1) Artie, the character using the wheelchair, is capable of limited dancing and only when his chair is manually pushed by his Glee cast members.
    2) In general the characters with disabilities and their peers are either pre-occupied with seeking a cure for their disabling condition(s) and/or they are helplessly resigned to their lack of physical ability in dance, in cheer, in football etc.
    3) In the case of the football player who become a para after a disabling football injury on the May 12th episode, Glee depicted him as house-bound and completely dependent on his mother for care. They even had a power wheelchair in his bedroom that he said he tried to use, but drove into a swimming pool the first time he used it…….and end of show. Oh sorry, he said he realized he’s good at math now that he’s disabled. I kept waiting for that story line to be developed. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But as a viewer who watches just that one episode, I potentially walk away with a very skewed version of life after disability.

    I question the writers and producers choices. It seems they are intentionally feeding the worst stereotypes out there about disability. Glee is striking out right and left for me. I am no longer a Gleek because I can't stomach a show that doesn't do its proper research in the area of dance or otherwise.